#makewintercount

About a month ago I received an email from the British Mountaineering Council informing me that I had won the #makewintercount competition that they had been running all winter with Lowe Alpine. I was astonished! This grand prize consisted of two nights in a hotel and a day out with British Mountain Guide Andy Cave for two people. Chris and I were obviously thrilled.

We spent a week or so wondering where we would be going, before finding out that we would be based at the Isles of Glencoe Hotel, which looked wonderful. Andy got in touch with us and we gave him our experience and what we hoped to get out of a day with a mountain guide. We then watched the weather forecast extremely closely for the week before the trip, excitedly trying to guess what routes we might be able to do.

We escaped the Glasgow rush hour on Friday evening and made it to Glencoe before Andy, who was driving up from England. From the hotel reception we could see the pool, and to reach our room we walked through the lounge and dining area, which had a lovely atmosphere. Our room was far beyond our expectations: large, with doors opening out onto Loch Leven.

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View over Loch Leven from our bedroom door

Upon meeting us for dinner in the restaurant, Andy also gave us two new Peak Ascent rucksacks, provided by Lowe Alpine as part of the prize. The food was delicious and we spent a very pleasant evening getting to know Andy, discussing our options for the following day and making our plans.

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My first try at making and using coils

We usually have very early starts when going out on the hills, so we had expected we would miss breakfast on Saturday, but Andy assured us there would be plenty of time, which made Chris happy. Having packed our new rucksacks, we set off just after 8.30am to Glean Spean. It was warm, with freezing level above the summits, so there was not going to be much ice. Andy had suggested climbing a little-known ridge in the Creag Meagaidh hills, which he knew well, and where there would be a suitable route whatever the conditions. Here, Chris and I could get ourselves up, with Andy demonstrating new techniques and providing guidance. This suited us perfectly, as although it would have been fun for Andy to lead us up something difficult, we had decided that we wanted to use the day as an opportunity to develop our own skills and gain the confidence to try more technical winter terrain by ourselves. Chris has some winter climbing experience but I have only walked in winter, and although I have been on a couple of introductory winter skills courses, when we are out together, we generally avoid steep ground.

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Andy showing Chris methods for getting us safely over short steeper sections

We had a leisurely start, with Andy showing us some of the gear he uses, before setting off along the forestry tracks on the north side of the A86 east of Tulloch.

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Andy ahead and Chris with the coils as we climbed a snowy slope. Note his shiny new Lowe Alpine Peak Ascent rucksack. It’s a great colour!

After a small river crossing and a sandwich pause, we emerged from the forest and headed west towards the steeper slopes. Visibility wasn’t great, so we made sure to get a few navigation and decision making tips. We headed for the east ridge of Beinn a’Chaorainn, trying to choose the least boggy route. Once properly on to the ridge and with less grass between the snow patches, we stopped to put our harnesses and helmets on and get our axes out. As the ridge got steeper, Andy showed us how to move together and to make coils with the rope to give the other person confidence and support against small slips. Chris usually leads whenever we are out in the mountains, whether walking, scrambling or climbing, so having Andy with us, gave me the opportunity to lead a bit and practice some rope skills myself.

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Getting used to moving together

Andy gave us a good range of helpful suggestions for moving on steep, but not overly dangerous, ground without having to stop and climb pitch by pitch, which will be really useful for us in the future. By staying on the ridge we also avoided any risk of avalanches; we could see the debris of these in the coires either side of us.

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Having fun!

Once onto the the flatter ground near the summit, Andy told us how it can be useful to keep the rope on in poor visibility; by keeping a good length of rope between you, the person behind can catch the other if they fall through a cornice! He also demonstrated that it can be advantageous to calculate the bearings and distances you will need to use after topping out in order to keep away from the edges and the cornices, before you start climbing, not when you reach the top.

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Nearly at the summit: protecting ourselves from the risk posed by invisible cornices

We used bearings and timing to navigate from the summit in the cloud, walking one in front of the other, rather than together, to help keep ourselves accurate. Then we headed down the south ridge until the cloud started clearing and we got some lovely views of the mountains to the south.

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Summit selfie!

We made our way back down to the forest as the sun was getting lower, dousing the landscape in a beautiful light, and followed a stream through the forest to the track which took us back to the car.

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Mountains just appearing through the cloud

Happily we made it back to the hotel in time for another very large and delicious dinner. After dinner Chris and I said goodbye to Andy, who would be leaving early on Sunday morning, and had a final drink on the sofas by the fire in the lounge area.

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Descending in the sunshine

In the morning, Andy had indeed left before we were up, but we stayed to test out the pool and the sauna, before consuming an enormous breakfast from the buffet.

It was a brilliant weekend and a fantastic prize. We learnt loads and Andy gave us lots of recommendations for places we should visit and routes we should try. We left full of new confidence and inspiration to get out on even more adventures.

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Post-mountain dinner (photo credit: Andy Cave)

Thank you very very much Andy, Lowe Alpine and the BMC!!!!

Na Gruagaichean (but not Binnein Mor)

Last weekend we decided to venture slightly further north beyond Glencoe, to investigate the Mamores, a range of hills that I have never been to, and Chris hasn’t explored much. Chris had a route in mind that takes in the summits of Na Gruagaichean and Binnein Mor from Kinlochleven, and looked interesting but not excessively long, which is important now the days  are shorter.

We left Stirling at 6.30am, which was the earliest that didn’t feel too horrendous for a Sunday morning. The route starts at St Paul’s Church in Kinlochleven, which is quite easy to find: take the first turning right after crossing the bridge in Kinlochleven and it is the white building at the end of the road. There is a car park to the right of it and the path passes between the church and the car park. Almost immediately, you reach a t-juntion where you should turn left, then keep right and follow the path marked Loch Eilde Mor. It was very chilly to start with but we soon warmed up as the path steepens through the deciduous woodland, which was very beautiful in its autumn colours. After crossing a stream, there are a few different worn paths but they all seem to go the same way. We soon came out of the wood and onto the moorland, where you must be sure to look behind you as the views of Loch Leven are stunning!

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Looking back to Loch Leven

We followed this path until we came to a landrover track, where we took our first Brunch bar stop. When you reach the track, the path onwards is visible continuing in the same direction, but starting from a bit further left along the track. This takes you along the hillside and around Sgor Eilde Beag, where we passed a couple who weren’t looking too happy and could only mutter “it’s a bit wild up there.” Indeed, it was definitely getting windier, so we found a sheltered spot before turning into Coire an Lochain for a sandwich.

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A good path heading towards Sgor Eilde Beag

Once in Coire an Lochain it was a lot colder: there were the first patches of snow on the ground and ice on the water. After continuing on for a few more minutes, we realised that we had taken a lower path that was leading towards Sgurr Eilde Mor, so had to cut left to the path we needed, which was slightly higher up the hill. The light was very strange, with sunshine behind and below us, but very black clouds in front. Sgurr Eilde Mor rose smooth and cone shaped on our right and we could see the dark shapes of many more hills and valleys in the cloud ahead. At this point we discussed some alternatives for when we reached the ridge, as the weather was looking rather menacing and it was already cold and windy.

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Sgurr Eilde Mor

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Menacing clouds ahead

Before the ground began to drop away we left the path and moved up to the left, soon finding a path which climbed steeply but without difficulty right up to the little bealach (saddle) north-west of Sgor Eilde Beag summit. It was very windy!

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Kirstie on the ridge – it was hard to hold the camera still!

We moved slowly up the ridge to the middle point between the three summits, whilst being buffeted about and having tiny, hard bits of snow driven into our eyes. Crouching down below the mid-point, we decided that we didn’t fancy doing the two summits in this weather, and the quickest way back would be via Na Gruagaichan. The ridge to that summit however is narrower on the map than the ridge to Binnein Mor, so we decided to have a look and see if looked feasible in the wind, and if not we’d re-assess. Following a bearing down, the ridge appeared below and is indeed quite narrow. However, the wind soon dropped and the cloud thinned, making it a really nice ridge walk, with stunning views under the clouds.

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Descending onto the ridge

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If you look back along the ridge as you come towards the far-side, you can see the north side is in places almost a flat vertical wall; this isn’t noticeable as you cross because the path stays slightly to the south, just below the crest.

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On our way up to Na Gruagaichan

We had another sandwich huddled in the shelter of a low, semi-circular rough wall of stones before making our way up Na Gruagaichan. The climb wasn’t too difficult, but it is quite rocky in places. At the summit we were pretty much in cloud again so we headed south down the broad shoulder until we were just under the cloud and the other mountains reappeared, topped with a smattering of snow.

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The route follows this shoulder until it becomes much steeper, then you have to choose your own way down. We took a more westerly line, which was quite easy while there was still snow on the ground but became slower on the steep, slippery grass. Eventually we met the track again and followed it east for a short distance before finding the path off it that leads back west and down to Kinlochleven. This last leg was surprisingly long but we finally came out exactly where we started, and having changed our boots, we made for the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe, to revive ourselves with hot chocolate and chips!

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Sunshine on the Pap of Glencoe

Details

Distance: approx. 12km (would be 14km with the second summit)

Ascent: approx. 1179m

Time: 6.5 hours

Summits: Na Gruagaichan (1056m) with option for Binnein Mor (1130)

 

Comments

A really stunning little ridge walk, with fabulous views, that made me want to go back to the Mamores and brought the Ring of Steall higher up the to-do list. It could be a great route for winter.

Liathach

In April 2015 Jessica and I travelled to the beautifully wild Torridon to walk, climb and scramble over as much as we could in the time we had. There was one great challenge that had eluded us on that trip and now we had the chance to go back to that amazing place and see if we could conquer it: the Liathach ridge!

I had first set eyes on the great mountain on that trip a year and a half ago and I remember being completely awe struck when I saw that immense fin of rock sticking out of the ground. It had an intimidating presence and looking up at the Am Fasarinen pinnacles in the middle of the ridge, I knew it would be a great adventure. So when planning our October holidays to head to the Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Harris (blogs to come) we could not resist taking the opportunity to sneak over to Torridon on the way.

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Wonderful rock layers on the way up

We parked at the car park about 800m east of Glen Cottage on the Glen Torridon road (A896). We had spent the night there in the van but we did notice that it filled up quickly. Knowing it was going to be a tough day, we set off early, and with plenty of sandwiches, to tackle the ridge from east to west. The initial ascent looked impossible but from the car park there is a steep and hidden path that follows the river, Allt an Doire Ghairbh and passes over some blocks to gain the ridge just east of the first munro, Spidean a’ Choire Leith. The path was good all the way and for your efforts you get some stunning views of Beinn Eighe and beyond.

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First breathtaking view as you reach the ridge

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The ridge to the first munro (the distant summit)

Now that we had gained the ridge, it was still hard going to gain the summit of Stob a’ Choire Liath Mhor and on to Spidean a’ Choire Leith, but the views in all directions were breathtaking and once perched on the top of the munro you get your first look at the impressive Am Fasarinen pinnacles.

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First view of the pinnacles

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Looking back along the ridge and over to Beinn Eighe

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First munro summit

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A steep scree slope led us off the top and down on to a platform just before the pinnacles. We put our helmets on and had the rope ready for deployment as we moved on to the scramble with tremendous excitement. It does not break you in gently. The first moves are traversing knife-edged rock with the kind of drops beneath you that give you butterflies in your tummy. There is no letting up as we continued weaving through blocks and going up and over some very exposed spikes. It was thrilling and at times a bit scary but the scrambling was never too hard making the traverse a lot of fun for the experienced scrambler.

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Coming over the pinnacles

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Don’t look down!

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Happy Jessica

As we reached the end of the pinnacles, the scrambling eased off, so we stopped for a bit of food and to marvel at the terrain we had just covered and the beautiful weather.

With the thrill of the Am Fasarinen pinnacles behind us, we began the lovely walk up to Mullach an Rathain, the second of the munros on the ridge, taking in the fantastic views of Loch Torridon, Beinn Alligin, the Northern pinnacles and also taking a look back to admire the view of the great journey we had just had.

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Looking back at our day

We munched down some more food, took the obligatory summit selfies and descended south into a huge scree chute before picking up a good but steep path that would eventually lead us to the road and back to the van.

Progress was held up however by three rutting stags having a good old shouting match, which we were able monitor with Jessica’s monocular.  It was great to see this huge show of strength and to see them do so on such steep ground was very impressive and made a fine end to the day.

Details

Distance: 11.2km

Ascent: 1311m (ooft!)

Time: 8 hours

Munro summits: Spidean a’ Choire Leith (1055m) and Mullach an Rathain (1023m)

Comments

The Liathach is a tremendous day out and one I will remember for a long time. It is one to save for good weather as some of the scrambling would become treacherous in poor conditions.

Buachaille Etive Beag, Glencoe

Buachaille Etive Beag is a ridge in Glencoe that comprises two munros: Stob Coire Raineach and Stob Dubh. It is less well known than its neighbour Buachaille Etive Mor, but it is also considerably easier. As the weather forecast wasn’t wonderful for Saturday, we chose this ridge for this weekend’s outing with two of Chris’ old work colleagues, as we wanted to take them out in Glencoe and it would be doable even if the weather was poor.

The walk starts at the car park opposite the “beehive” cairn, which you see on the right before you pass the Three Sisters.  We started in the drizzle along the good path that heads into the valley. As you progress, you need to make sure you take the path that climbs up the left hand side of the valley rather than the one that follows the stream along the bottom. The path soon steepens and becomes almost a stone staircase, which means you rapidly gain height but also have to stop to take your waterproofs and extra layers off! This path takes you straight up to the bealach (saddle), part way along the ridge, which boasts some nice flat rocks that are perfect for a sandwich and drink stop.

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Almost at the bealach

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From here you can choose which peak you climb first; we went north-east (left from the bealach) and up the short steep ascent to the smaller of the two munros, Stob Coire Raineach. As we left the bealach, the cloud came in, so it was a misty and atmospheric climb, with just the briefest of glimpses of how amazing the views from the top must be. The wind caught us occasionally on the way up which was nice and refreshing but unusually, there was very little wind at the summit. After trying and failing to take a few photos through the breaks in the cloud, we headed back down the stony hillside.

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Summit of Stob Coire Raineach

The climb to Stob Dubh is longer than to Stob Coire Raineach. When you look the opposite way (south-west) from the bealach, the summit that you can see is not Stob Dubh: you have to climb this, and then there is a little bit of descent before the final ascent to the second summit.

As we came down towards the bealach, the clouds cleared so we were able to distract ourselves from the effort of the second climb with the stunning views, both back across Glencoe to the Aonach Eagach and forwards, down to Loch Etive. The cairn marking the summit of Stob Dubh is not right at the end of the ridge, and it is worth continuing the short distance past this highest point to get the best views (and have another sandwich).

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Looking out to Loch Etive from the summit of Stob Dubh

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Team photo

To descend, you simply retrace your steps along the ridge, which is nice and wide but still has some very steep drops off either side, making it a pleasant ridge-walk.

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The Lairig Gartairn and Buachaille Etive Mor behind

We had a final pause for a drink and a snack at the bealach again before descending the path back down into the valley. Here, the steps that brought you quickly up seem a lot bigger (particularly for little legs like mine) and make it hard on the thighs and knees. However, it doesn’t last for too long and you are soon back on the flatter ground leading to the car park.

This only took the four of us about 4 ¾ hours, so there was plenty of time for a drink at the Clachaig before heading back to Stirling, where there was still time for a cup of tea and a chat before going home for dinner.

Details

Distance: 10km

Time: 4-6hours

Summits: 2 munros, Stob Coire Raineach and Stob Dubh

Comments:

A nice ridge-walk that doesn’t take too long and isn’t too strenuous; perfect for anyone wanting to experience the beauty of Glencoe without taking on some of the more challenging routes.

Not too much bog…. I actually took my gaiters off, which doesn’t happen often these days. We would recommend good boots though as the terrain is rough and rocky.

Most useful piece of kit/advice:

Jessica says: Remember your poles, they were great for getting me up the steep bits and helped my knees going down the big rock steps.

A Quality Mountain Day in Glencoe

Saturday was to be Chris’ last quality mountain day (QMD) before heading off for his Mountain Leader assessment, and what a quality mountain day it was!

Bidean Nam Bean and its neighbour, Stob Coire Sgreamhach, have been on our radar for a long time; we have just been waiting for a decent weather forecast to get out and do them. So we picked up our friend, Kirstie, at 7.30am on Saturday and drove up to Glencoe in the sunshine feeling very excited. We parked at the smaller of the two car parks halfway along the glen giving fantastic views of the Three Sisters, and set off towards the footbridge across the River Coe, whose water was a very enticing turquoise below.

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The path rises steeply up the valley

The path leads up between Aonach Dubh on the right and Gearr Aonach on the left, into Coire nan Lochan. Once up fairly high the towering walls and pinnacles of Stob Coire nan Lochan are very impressive. There was still a lot of snow in the gullies running down between the towers, which was marked with the zig zagging tracks of skis.

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Coire nan Lochan

Here we left the path and moved up the slopes on the right to the bealach (saddle) between Stob Coire nan Lachan and Aonach Dubh, then followed the ridge to the summit of Coire nan Lochan, admiring the crumbling pinnacles along the edge.

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The views were amazing: it was so clear that mountains extended in all directions and Ben Nevis was clearly visible, huge behind the Aonach Eagach ridge. From this point, you can see much of the rest of the walk: the ridges between the summits of the two munros and the path out through the Lost Valley (Coire Gabhail). We could also see that the descent into the Lost Valley was covered in snow and very steep.

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View of the ridge to Stob Coire Sgreamhach

We descended down to the next bealach with Chris spotting us on the steep sections and began climbing the ridge to the summit of Bidean nan Bean, which still had some snow on it. Here, we again marveled at the views and enjoyed a sandwich stop, during which we were joined by a Snow Bunting that wasn’t at all bothered by our presence.

Wandering along the next ridge section was lovely: the visibility was by far the best that I have ever experienced in Glencoe, and we gained the second munro summit easily.

We then had to decide how we were going to get down; this was causing a sort of bottleneck for all the other walkers up there, as the summer descent route was covered in what looked like an almost vertical wall of deep snow, which was clearly unusable without crampons and axes.

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The way out

Some people were either going all the way back the way we had come, making an extremely long day and others were going to try to get down the ridge beyond Stob Coire Sgreamhach. We decided to simply climb down the snow-free rocks and grass, thus bypassing the steepest section of snow. This wasn’t easy and Chris did an excellent job of guiding Kirstie and I down. The pair of walkers following just behind us and knocking rocks down towards us, did not help our descent. So, if you are ever above a group on steep, loose ground, please wait for them to move to safety before trying to descend yourself…..it might save a nasty accident!

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A steep descent!

Once onto the snow, we were able to move quite quickly down the slope and into the Hidden Valley with its towering cliffs on all sides.

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It’s a beautiful place, with the entrance blocked by gorgeous woodland and massive boulders, the smaller of which are worn smooth by a river that seems to have now disappeared underground. Picking our way through this was good fun and we saw a Blaeberry/Bilberry bumblebee (Bombus Monticola) queen on the flowering Blaeberry/Bilberry. These are my favourite bumblebees and are quite scarce. You are most likely to see them in upland areas; they are easily identifiable by their big red bottoms and yellow striped thorax.

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The Lost Valley

The walk out from this point is lovely, with waterfalls and pools on the right, so clear you can barely see the water, spring flowers emerging and steep cliffs above.

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Two of the Three Sisters

So altogether we had an absolutely fantastic day, perfectly finished by a delicious meal at the Rod and Reel in Crianlarich.

The stunning Ben Cruachan

Having spent much of the previous two weekends on the rolling Drumochter and Monadh Liath hills, we decided to head west to find some rockier, pointier summits.

Last year,at similar time, Chris and I climbed the munros Beinn a’Chochuill and Beinn Eunaich. From those mountains we had a fantastic view of the Cruachan massif, which was covered in snow and looked very imposing. Since then returning to climb Ben Cruachan has been very high on our list. So with the unusual situation of a better forecast in the west than the east, that is where we headed.

It was chilly but sunny when we set of from Loch Awe with our friend Izzy, but the lack of wind and the steep climb through the woods soon had us shedding layers. A short boggy stretch lead to a very rickety stile over a deer fence, and a stream crossing over the rocks.

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Stream crossing

A tarmacked road then took us to the foot of the large Cruachan dam; at the left-hand end a steep ladder takes up onto the top where a great view of the entire route is revealed: from the summit of Ben Cruachan appears on the left, the stretching along to the second munro, Stob Diamh, and the path back down to Coire Cruachan. We followed a well-worn path to the bottom of a small valley, where we started to ascend more steeply. Shortly, we reached the first snow patches and skirted around them, keeping to the grass and rocks until we reached some nice big boulders for our first bacon sandwich.

 

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Bacon sandwich stop

We then got our ice axes out and moved up a steep snow slope, with Chris kicking steps into the still deep snow. From the bottom it looked quite easy, but looking down made us realise how steep it actually was. One at the bealach, we started climbing up the ridge towards the summit, stopping along the way to put our crampons on.

The summit was spectacular. The cloud kept blowing over us, first hiding, and then slowly revealing the snow covered ridges and summits to either side of us as well as the snow-capped mountains that stretch endlessly in every direction.

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Making our way off the summit was trickier, requiring a few steps of careful down climbing in places. Chris was therefore able to practice safety on steep ground techniques in earnest, which he did very effectively and confidently. As we made our way along this ridge the views were wonderful, both of the path ahead and the route we had already taken. The drop on the left was quite breath-taking at times and you stay on the ridge for a really satisfying length of time. When we eventually reached the second summit, the views were equally impressive and the snowy ridge leading off was beautiful.

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Stob Diamh

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Once we had descended out of the snow, the terrain became very boggy, with no clear path until we had crossed a stream at the bottom of the small gully. Amongst the small streams, we took the opportunity to refill our water bottles: the water tasted delicious. The sun was reflecting off the loch and we could see all the way we had come. From there we simply followed the path back down to the dam, where we ate the last of our snacks. By this point the evening was very warm and it felt almost like summer.

We got back to the car at about 7pm and all three of us were happy to take our boots off after 10.5 hours. It was great and thoroughly exhilarating day, which I would include among my favourites and one we would definitely like to repeat. Thanks for coming out with us Izzy, we hope to have another day like that with you again soon!